Why Is My Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box?

Jamie Case, DVM
By Jamie Case, DVM on Oct. 31, 2023
A cat rests outside of their litter box.

No cat parent wants to discover that their cat has pooped outside the litter box. 

Accidents happen occasionally, but if you notice your cat pooping outside the litter box on a regular basis, an underlying medical, behavioral, or environmental issue is likely to blame.

It's important to identify and correct the issue quickly because cats can develop a preference for pooping on different surfaces, and the habit of pooping outside the litter box can become a hard one to break. 

Reasons Your Cat Is Pooping Outside the Litter Box

House soiling is one of the most common reasons cats are given up for adoption.

Whether your cat is pooping outside the litter box because of a medical, behavioral, or environmental issue, it can sometimes be challenging to figure out why they are not using their litter box.

Medical Issues

Cats are masters at hiding illness, but house soiling could be a sign that something is medically wrong.

If your cat is suddenly pooping outside the litter box, schedule a visit with your veterinarian.

Some medical issues that could lead to house soiling include:

  • Digestive problemsConstipation, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, or other digestive issues that can cause a cat to feel a sense of urgency or pain when pooping can lead to the cat avoiding the litter box.

  • Arthritis—Mobility issues such as arthritis may make it difficult for cats to get into a litter box. It may also make the squatting position uncomfortable. Arthritis in the feet, especially in declawed cats, may cause discomfort when stepping on certain textures, like cat litter.

  • Diabetes or kidney disease—Certain medical conditions like diabetes and kidney disease can lead to increased urination, which may cause cats to feel the box is too dirty or not appropriate for use.

  • Cognitive dysfunctionCognitive dysfunction can cause increased anxiety in a cat, which may make them feel uncomfortable in their litter box.

  • Matted fur—Long, matted, or dirty fur around the rectum can cause pain or discomfort for a cat, which may lead to litter box avoidance.

Before visiting your veterinarian, pay attention to your cat’s bowel movements so you can report abnormalities to the veterinary team:

  • Are you noticing any changes in the size, color, or consistency of your cat’s poop?

  • Does your cat seem to be pooping more or less frequently than before?

  • Have you noticed any changes in your cat’s appetite or thirst?

  • Is your cat limping, less playful than usual, spending less (or no) time in their favorite elevated locations, or choosing to rest or sleep in new places? 

Behavioral Issues

Behavioral issues, which may sometimes overlap with environmental issues, can include anything that causes cats to feel stressed or anxious within the home.

Stress and anxiety can arise from:

  • Changes in the family’s routine—Even a slight schedule change, or people moving into or out of the home, may cause some cats to feel stress.

  • A new pet within the home—Bringing a new pet into the household can be quite disruptive to existing pets, and cats may even be affected by a stray animal spending time near a window or door where your cat can see or smell them. Cats may begin house soiling because they don’t want to share the litter box, they no longer feel safe in the litter box, or they don’t feel safe taking their usual route to visit the litter box.

  • Home renovations—Cats are creatures of habit, so renovating the home, or even just rearranging the furniture, could lead to litter box avoidance. 

  • Resource guarding—This can occur when a cat in the home is preventing other cats from accessing the litter box. 

Environmental Issues

Cats can be quite picky, and a minor change with their litter box environment can cause them to avoid using it. Some potential problems include:

  • The litter box location is wrong—Most cats prefer a litter box in a quiet, low-traffic area that they can easily access and that allows them to see all directions while they are in the litter box. The box should not be in an area that makes them feel cornered. If they need to leave the litter box in a hurry, they should have multiple directions in which they could escape.

  • The litter box is the wrong type—Litter boxes that are covered, have high sides, or include a cleaning robot may help you keep your house cleaner, but they may also make it difficult or scary for cats to use them.

  • You’re using the wrong type of litter—Most cats become accustomed to the litter they used as a kitten, and they often prefer a clumping, unscented litter with a fine or medium texture.

  • The litter is too deep—Cats don’t typically like when the litter is too deep, so keep your litter depth to no more than a couple of inches.

  • The box isn’t clean—Cats prefer a fresh, clean litter box to do their business. Like us, cats don’t enjoy the smell of a soiled litter box, and they don’t like to step in dirty litter. 

How to Prevent Your Cat From Pooping Outside Their Litter Box

You can prevent house soiling issues with your cat by keeping a few tips in mind:

  • Have the right number of litter boxes—How many litter boxes do you need? The general rule is to have one litter box for each cat in the home plus one additional box. If you have one cat, you should have two litter boxes. If you have three cats, provide four litter boxes.

  • Spread the litter boxes throughout the house—Don’t put the litter boxes directly next to each other. Instead, spread them throughout your home—at least one on each floor—so no cat can block access to all the litter boxes at once.

  • Keep litter boxes in quiet, low-traffic areas—Just like people, cats prefer peace and privacy when doing their business. While the laundry room may seem like a good place for a litter box, some cats won’t appreciate the noise of the washer and dryer.

  • Keep the bathroom and kitchen separate—Cats don’t like to eat and drink where they relieve themselves, so ensure food and water dishes are not too close to the litter box.

  • Choose the right litter—Select a litter that clumps, is unscented, and is a fine or medium texture. Once you’ve chosen a litter, stick with it. If you need to switch litter for any reason, try to do so gradually by mixing the previous litter with the new litter. Even a change in litter scent could upset some cats.

  • Keep the box clean—Scoop the litter box at least once daily. Thoroughly clean the box itself once every two weeks. Empty the box and use a gentle, unscented, enzyme-based cleanser. Ensure the box is completely dry before putting clean litter inside.

    • Sometimes multiple cats in the home will pick the same litter box as their favorite, and it may quickly become soiled. If you notice your cats are favoring one of the boxes, you may want to clean that box more frequently than the others or add another litter box nearby.

  • Make other areas of the home less desirable—If your cat seems to be pooping in the same places outside the litter box, you may try to make those areas less desirable by using enzyme-based cleansers to help remove pheromones that may draw them back to that area. You can also place objects there that will make the area less desirable, such as foil, double-sided tape, or a motion-activated light.

  • Reduce your cat’s stress—If your cat is showing signs of stress or anxiety, consider using calming pheromones, stick to a routine as much as possible, set a regular playtime with your cat, and provide plenty of hiding and resting places.

  • Consider a litter box trial—Sometimes, it takes trial and error to discover what your cat might prefer. If your cat has begun house soiling, offer different types of boxes and litter, and place the boxes in different areas of the home to discover your cat’s bathroom preferences.

When To Speak to Your Veterinarian

While the above tips can be helpful if your cat is having issues with pooping outside the litter box, it’s also important to work with your veterinarian to rule out a potential medical problem.

It’s especially important to call your veterinarian if you notice:

Why Is My Cat Pooping Outside the Litter Box FAQs

Do cats poop outside the litter box for attention?

Pet parents often believe cats are pooping outside the litter box as a version of revenge or protest. This is usually not the case.

Pooping outside the litter box is typically the result of an underlying medical condition, litter box issue, or stress within the home.

Should I punish my cat for pooping outside the litter box?

Punishing your cat for pooping outside the litter box may backfire and contribute to increased stress (and increased litter box frustrations for both of you).

It’s best not to disrupt their human-animal bond by punishing your cat if they poop outside the litter box.

Instead, try the tips mentioned in this article, and work with your veterinarian to rule out medical causes.

Clean up accidents promptly, using an enzyme-based cleanser to prevent your cat from being drawn back to that area. Then reevaluate the litter box setup in your home. 

Why does my cat poop on the floor only at night?

Cats are most active at night, so pooping on the floor at night may in part be related to their increased activity at that time.

We also see that many cats like a little privacy, and often there are fewer pets and people around at night.

Also, be sure your cat can get to their litter box at night, keeping doors open and preventing obstacles from blocking their path.

Featured Image: cunfek/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Jamie Case, DVM


Jamie Case, DVM


Dr. Jamie Case graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 2017, after receiving a Bachelor of Science...

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